Political activism, headphones included

As you read this article, lean forward in your chair if you are drawn in, lean back and fold your arms if you are repulsed, turn to your left and cup your right ear if you are ambivalent, or if you are distracted, turn right and look over your shoulder behind you. If you were at visiting lecturer in theatre David Morris’ Routine Hearing this weekend, you’ve done this already.

Routine Hearing was less like a show and more like a caucus. The audience literally performed the show onstage, physically exercising its right to make decisions. While audience participation usually frightens me
(and most other theater-goers), Routine Hearing managed to make the experience incredibly fun, thought-provoking and wholly un-scary.

Audience members were seated onstage in chairs arranged geometrically on a red, white and blue grid. Each person was equipped with a hearing device and headphones through which they heard, throughout the show, a sequence of rhetoric from American presidents, political pundits and intellectuals.

While listening, audience members were asked to respond with particular gestures. Keeping these movements in mind, participants were encouraged to think constructively about what they were hearing, rather than just letting it wash over them.

This was a little nerve-wracking at first. I kept thinking, “What if the guy next to me leans back when I lean forward?” Luckily, there were five different channels of audio, so the odds were in my favor that those sitting next to me were listening to something completely different.

Knowing this, I felt a little more relaxed and less conscious of what the people around me were doing or thinking. As the piece progressed, I noticed myself becoming more and more self-contained. In one section, where we were required to walk around the space on the grid, I realized I was always looking down at the floor. When I looked up, my fellow audience members were doing the same thing – each one contained
within his or her own little bubble.

Two brief interludes interrupted the audio series, during which time food was served and the stage manager and research assistant, Burcu Gurcay ’10, delivered a lecture on the physiology and psychology of listening. Gurcay explained the frequently unsettling reasons behind our reactions to what we hear, saying that we often respond, for example, more positively to a speaker if we hear cheers in the background.

Morris developed Routine Hearing with lighting designer Juliet Chia ’97 as an artist in residence at the HERE Arts Center in New York City. The show was first performed as part of a presentation of works-in-progress. As Morris explained, the “work-in-progress methodology,” in which a show is repeatedly performed with the intent of receiving feedback, allows a piece to be redeveloped and constantly improved. In this process, shows become like living things – constantly changing and reacting to the world around them. Routine Hearing, which breathed according to the makeup of its audience, exemplified this volatile energy.

Routine Hearing is the second in a series of two shows called The Body Politic. The first, Constitutional, utilizes a similar spirit of audience participation in a speed-dating-style examination of the Constitution. Morris is currently considering a third installment to The Body Politic, this time concerning “the twin ideals of capitalism and democracy” under which Americans are brought up. Morris’ political work in his shows challenges audience members to confront their inalienable rights in new and exciting ways while having fun at the same time.

In a surprise finale, a video of the entire show was projected on the floor at 10 times the actual speed while simultaneously matched with the accompaniment of a stirring waltz. As we viewed our sped up movements across the stage, laughter filled the room. Looking more like bugs crawling across the floor than actual people, our movements seemed random and fleeting. It was practically impossible to pick myself out of the crowd. Now that my self-conscious hyper awareness seemed humorous and unimportant, I leaned forward to watch the movements of The Body Politic.